Lonzo Ball or De’Aaron Fox?

Posted: 05/26/2017 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

We’ve established that Markelle Fultz is the no-doubt #1 guard (and overall) prospect in the draft. That’s good for the Celtics, who don’t have to worry about any of this. But for everyone else… who’s the second best PG prospect in the draft? How do Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith, and Frank Ntilikina compare? Let’s find out.

I think that the Fultz vs. Ball debate of the college season has become more of a Ball vs. Fox debate in the aftermath of Fox’s annihilation of Ball in the Sweet 16. That was the game that propelled Fox into the top-five discussion. He scored 39 points on 20 shots, going 13-15 from the line and holding a seemingly timid Ball to just 10 points. To make matters worse for Lonzo, the Bruin declared for the NBA draft in the postgame interview and seemed rather unbothered about the loss. This doesn’t seem like a big deal to me, but juxtapose it with Fox’s reaction to UK’s loss in the Elite Eight, and, well, it’s obvious who you’d rather have fight for you on the basketball court.

So that was the beginning of the debate between Fox and Ball. Then came the reports that the Lakers were working out Fox and the news that they’d pick second in the draft, setting up a clear choice between Ball — the guy everyone has expected them to take all along — and Fox — the up-and-comer.

I’ll say right away that I understand that some fans don’t want to have to deal with LaVar Ball — Lonzo’s, er, eccentric father. But I really only think that the LaVar thing will be an issue in the NBA if Lonzo underperforms expectations and struggles. If Lonzo’s a star player, he’s going to be at the center of attention, and nothing I’ve seen him say or do has led me to believe that he’s anything but an even-keeled player. In fact, as a player he’s the polar opposite of what you’d expect from LaVar Ball’s son. His greatest strength is his brain. I cannot overstate how smart Ball is and how high his basketball IQ is. His passing is obviously Exhibit A. He averaged 7.6 assists and just 2.5 turnovers per game, darn good numbers for a freshman point guard. But beyond the numbers, he also transformed the UCLA Bruins, serving as the straw that stirred the drink for a team that won 31 games, more than twice as many as it did the year before, when coach Steve Alford was seemingly on his way out.

One reason that Ball has become so tantalizing as a prospect is that he’s a flashy passer. Another is that he’s a brilliant transition player, showing the rare ability to grab a rebound (he’s 6’6″ and has a 6’9″ wingspan, which along with his instincts allowed him to average six boards a game, obviously an elite number for a point guard) and immediately push the pace. UCLA didn’t just beat teams last year — they obliterated them, giving them a knockout punch in the form of a quick 10-0 or 18-4 run. They broke 100 points nine times and finished second in the country in points per game and first in assists. Not all of that was because of Ball. I mentioned this in my effort to laud Fultz, but I think it bears repeating: Ball had an embarrassment of riches around him, especially offensively. Fellow freshman one-and-done T.J. Leaf is set to be a first round pick because he’s a terrific scorer. Ball was joined in the backcourt by senior sharpshooter Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday, and Isaac Hamilton, all of whom averaged more than 12 points per game. And for long stretches it seemed as if Thomas Welsh could not miss a midrange shot. But there’s no denying the fact that Ball was the driving force behind all of this.

A third, and probably most important, reason that Ball is a tantalizing prospect is that he seems to fit so perfectly into the modern NBA. He made only 12 shots all season that were neither layups/dunks nor three pointers. A lot of people are painting that as a good thing, and there’s probably good reason for that. I don’t see the NBA moving away from the trend towards threes and layups anytime soon. But the 12 shot stat actually worries me more than it pleases me. The biggest reason I’m not sold on Ball as the #2 pick is that I’m not sold on his scoring potential. It used to be that the best point guards weren’t putting the ball in the bucket as much as the elite players at other positions. Look at Jason Kidd, perhaps Ball’s best case scenario. In his greatest statistical season, Kidd put up 19-6-9, making his fourth straight All-Star game. Kidd ended up making 10 All-Star games, and he’s now thought of as one of the best point guards ever. But guess what? Last year, every All-Star guard averaged better than 20 points per game. 12 point guards averaged 20+ per contest. There’s no Kidd in today’s NBA, and of course a Jason Kidd would be hugely valuable in any era. But teams are looking for their lead guards — and especially their #2 picks — to blossom into guys who can score 22 or 23 points per night… at least. Here are a number of reasons that I don’t expect Ball to ever reach those heights:

  • I find it hard to believe that Ball, with his wonky shot mechanics, is going to be a 41% three point shooter in the NBA. That’s what he was in college, and I have to admit that at some point you just have to ignore the way the shot looks and just accept that the guy’s a good three point shooter. But I’m not at that point yet, especially since Lonzo shot just 67% from the free throw line. I do believe Ball has a high floor as a shooter — maybe 33 or 34%, which is just fine — but I think 38 or 39% might be his upper range. And yes, his low release point does continue to worry me, results be damned.
  • He doesn’t draw fouls. Free throw attempts are fairly translatable from college to the NBA, and Ball attempted just 2.7 free throws per contest. That’s because he almost always chose to pass the ball rather than taking a tough shot off the dribble.
  • In the pick-and-roll, where a lot of guards score a lot of their points, Ball almost always passes. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but we’re nitpicking. I think now we’re starting to see why Fultz should be the consensus #1.
  • He’s not athletic or quick enough to blow by people. He’s not slow or stiff, but his first step is much slower than, say, De’Aaron Fox’s. That’s not a fair comparison, because Fox relies heavily upon his speed and athleticism, but even if you compare Ball’s first step to Stephen Curry’s, you can see that Ball’s going to be rather limited in terms of his ability to create easy looks for himself.

And yet, Ball remains an immensely desirable offensive talent. Unlike many pass-first guards (I’m looking at you, Rajon Rondo), Ball is a very useful player to have off the ball. Because he played on such a talented UCLA team, we got to see him off the ball quite a bit, and he is always moving, cutting, and trying to get open:

He was also a knockdown shooter in catch-and-shoot situations from everywhere on the court. I’m very confident that Ball will find a way to be valuable offensively even when he doesn’t have the ball. That’s why he could prove appealing for a team that already has a primary ballhandler — say, the Sixers with Ben Simmons. Let’s just say that adding a high IQ guard who can shoot and always makes the right pass is never a bad thing for a struggling offense.

That was long, but I felt like all of it needed to be said, because Ball is the most divisive top prospect in the draft (largely because of his father, but still). There’s much more of a consensus about Ball’s defense. It’s what you’d expect: he has the instincts to cause havoc and the size to play decent defense, but he’s not quick or bursty enough to profile as a great defender. In other words, he’s perfectly suitable as the guy covering the less potent guard threat.

If you watched the video I posted above and/or DeAaron Fox’s performance against UCLA, there’s no way you don’t love him. If you watched his quiet, foul-plagued, frustrating performance against North Carolina, you’re probably a bit puzzled about why Fox has catapulted into the top five of most mock drafts. That’s Fox: enigmatic, brilliant, and overflowing with potential. The John Wall comparisons are lazy — yes, we all know they’re both fast, they both went to Kentucky, and neither had a lick of a three point shot coming out of college. Heck, they’re even the same height (6’4″). But Wall was much stouter coming out of college (at least 25 pounds heavier than Fox’s 171) and his wingspan is three inches longer. Fox is a great athlete, but he’s not the physical specimen that Wall has been since he was the consensus #1 pick in 2010. Fox is also left-handed, and it’s hard to compare a lefty to a righty. But the fact is that speed is such a central part of both Fox’s game and Wall’s game that the comparisons are unavoidable. I think the comparisons are lazy, but I also think that Fox could turn out to be as good as Wall is. But he has a long way to go.

I think he has the potential to be a more complete scorer than Ball is. He already excels at many of the things Ball struggles to do. I mentioned that he went 13-15 from the line against UCLA. Fox averaged 5.9 free throw attempts per game in 29.6 minutes per contest. He used his quick, spindly frame to free himself for open midrange look after open midrange look (part of that, of course, is that other teams were daring him to shoot those shots. More on that in a second). He used his sneaky strength and his athleticism to finish tough shots at the rim, although more consistency would be ideal. He only shot 36% from midrange jumpers, but he at least showed that he can vary his offensive game, which could allow him to explode if he fixes his shot. And he’s obviously a great transition player, thanks largely to his speed. More than 35% of his points came on the fastbreak.

As a playmaker, Fox is hit-or-miss, certainly not on Ball’s level. As he became more aggressive late in the season, his assist numbers trended down, and he ended up averaging just 4.6 assists per game (Wall averaged 6.5 in his lone season at Kentucky, by the way). He made some outstanding reads and passes, setting up a lot of easy Bam Adebayo dunks. But he’s nowhere near where he needs to be as a floor general. He’s also only 19, and that’s something that will surely improve with experience. If your major worry about Fox is his distribution, you should take him in a heartbeat. I think he’ll end up being a good facilitator, albeit probably not on Wall’s (or Ball’s) level. But nobody’s biggest concern is Fox’s distribution…

It’s his shot. Fox’s shot doesn’t look bad, but it is horrendous. He shot 24.6% from three point range, and not much better from midrange. He hit two threes in the Elite Eight against North Carolina, but that was atypical. He only had two other games with 2+ three pointers made all season. And if we’ve learned nothing else from the last few years, we’ve learned that ball-dominant point guards who can’t shoot are huge liabilities offensively. Just look at Elfrid Payton, a lottery pick who was set to be a steal “as long as he could figure out how to shoot.” He never has, and some guys never do. In order to consider Fox a top three pick, you must think that Fox will develop some semblance of a jump shot. He at least has to hit on his midrange shots and keep opponents honest from three. Best case scenario is a Wall-like progression from three — Wall went from shooting sub-30% in his first three years to about 35%, also known as good enough. Fox can return top-10 value without figuring out how to shoot much, because he’s a more dynamic player than Payton. He’s also a great defensive player. Fox is tenacious, laterally quick, and can disrupt passing lanes with his long arms or opposing guards with his quick hands. He still needs to get stronger, but he could easily be an elite defensive point guard. I hate to be so simplistic, but it really all hinges on the shot. If it becomes average, Fox is an All-Star. If it’s 24.6%, he’s a role player. If it’s in between, he’s probably a solid starter.

I went into this thinking I would prefer Fox to Ball, largely because that’s what I was thinking after that Sweet 16 game. And I do believe that Fox has the higher overall upside. But I’m just so scared of his shot, and I know that I’m going to get a valuable offensive contributor in Lonzo. I think it’s fairly close, but I think Ball’s a better prospect than Fox is.


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